The Stink of Corruption in Phnom Penh

Saturday, 13 February 2010 08:36 By Anne Elizabeth Moore, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

The Stink of Corruption in Phnom Penh
(Photo: angel garcia / Flickr)

A lake development project is fueling thousands of forced evictions in the Cambodian capital.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - There are plenty of guns in Cambodia, but I cannot get used to them being pointed at me, even in jest. After all, I'm just picking at my lunch, staring lazily at Phnom Penh's biggest lake, Boeung Kak, and the massive sandy beach across the water. Two years ago, the area was thriving with fishermen. Now, the beach is moving closer to the spot where I sit, minute by minute. Most of the fishermen are gone.

The man with the gun stands, gesturing for me to follow him. He jerks his chin upwards as he strides down the open deck of the bar and restaurant of a one-time popular guest house in the seedy backpacker area of the city. His ruddy face projects menace, but only in an act of self-protection. "Is not real," he asides of the rifle when we get to the edge of the water.

I look at the gun. It is carved from a solid piece of wood. It could kill someone, sure, but it cannot protect him from what is being stolen from him, even as we stand watching.

The capital city's largest remaining natural lake is being filled in with sand to make way for a residential and shopping district. It's sparked a wave of forced evictions known more commonly around the country as "landgrabbing," kicked off by the city's February 2007 agreement with Shukaku Inc., in which the company paid $79 million for a 99-year lease on the land.

A Phnom Penh family.A Phnom Penh family, finishes fishing and chores on the banks of the polluted Boeung Kak lake, currently under development. The mass of sand behind them used to line the Mekong River. (photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)

That is, the land invisible under the water. To make it useful for the development project, of course, Shukaku Inc. had to devise a way of getting to that land. So in late August 2008, a massive drainage pipe began pumping sand into the water at a rate of around 25 square meters per hour. Residents fled. Many had not been notified in advance.

I asked the restaurant manager if tourism would soon be affected, and my armed companion scoffs. "Is already," he says in his rolling Khmer accent, waving the gun toward the sandy beach. As many Cambodians do, he declines to give his name to reporters out of fear of government retaliation.

Last modified on Saturday, 13 February 2010 11:12